Octavio Paz is Mexico’s greatest living poet. But let’s face it: that’s like saying William Carlos Williams was Paterson’s best writer. For Americans, a better way of indicating Paz’s importance will have to be found.
Perhaps it would be more suggestive to say that in the universe of Latin American writing, Neruda’s poetry is solar: a lavish, Hispanic ful-mination–like a Tamayo watermelon–and Paz’s poetry lunar: a rarer, Gallic luminosity–like a Magritte moon–; or, to put it another way, to say that while Neruda is directly concerned with the world, its objects and processes (including poetry), Paz is more frequently concerned with poetry, its procedures and words (meaning things).
But let’s really face it: Paz is an even better essayist than he is a poet.
His 1950 evocation of Mexican character and culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, is, in fact, devoted to the real world and it produces an astonishing image of a whole nation, truer than the profound truths it reveals for presenting them in a mythos made entirely beautiful.
Written in a lucid, rich prose, Labyrinth of Solitude is Paz’s poetic masterpiece. And his volume of poetics, El arco y la lira (still untranslated) is more indispensable and uniquely expressive than much of the poetry he has written. So we confront a major poet who writes invaluable prose, and that’s exactly where Eagle or Sun? omes in. Eagle or Sun? was published one year after Labyrinth of Solitude, and, as its title signifies, the book continues Paz’s search for Mexican identity.
(The title images refer to the obverse and reverse of a Mexican coin; the title poem explains: “Today I fight alone with a word.
That which concerns me, to which I concern: heads or tails? eagle or sun? “) But the book also continues Paz’s vacillating search for his authorial identity, and he might just as well have written: “Today I fight alone with a form. Heads or tails? prose or poetry? ” because Eagle or Sun? s a series of short prose poems (miniature, highly imaginative essais, really) marking a crucial instance in Paz’s career where he has consciously tried to dissolve the images of his poetry in the fluid of his prose without sacrificing the nature of either. Eagle or Sun ? , then, is a significant experiment in the career of a significant poet, and its longest piece, “My Life with the Wave” (which tells of a man’s falling in love with a wave, his taking her home and the tides of their affair until she freezes in his absence and he sells her to a waiter who chops her up into little pieces to chill bottles) is a breathtaking success.
It is a fantasy as delicate as anything by Hans Christian Andersen or Perrault, as magical as anything by Andre Breton or Dali and as beautiful as anything else by Paz. “My Life with the Wave” alone justifies the experiment and the volume. For the most part, however, this book is the self-referring self-scrutiny of an intense artist using prose to make words into things (“a bit of air in a pure mouth, a bit of water on greedy lips”) as he stands in awe of things made into poetry (“the cantos of sand … said by the wind a single time in a single interminable phrase, sourceless, endless, senseless”).
Like so much contemporary art, Eagle or Sun? is self-consciously about itself; but, for a change, intelligently, illuminatingly so. Thus it is not a carefree volume, because Paz explains that “Every poem is made at the poet’s expense”; and while it sings the pain of creation–the Passion of Poetry, not the passion in poetry is Paz’s theme–it also celebrates the poetic opportunity by rejoicing in the “World to populate, blank page,” privileging us to witness a poet who can accurately say that “From my body images gush” while he gracefully avoids that modern literary pitfall, “a bramble of allusions, tangled and fatal. Of course everything in Eagle or Sun ? is not as good as “My Life with the Wave,” but by pointing always in the direction of itself, the book establishes its own elevated norms and provides a fine introduction to all of Paz’ s work.